Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Twelfth of Never

“The Twelfth of Never” is a colloquial expression referring to a hypothetical event that will never happen in the course of one’s lifetime, and one that is unlikely to occur at all. It is also the name of a frequently covered pop song that was a hit in 1957 for Johnny Mathis. Since “The Twelfth of Never” is a love song, the title refers to the moment in time when the singer will ever stop loving his beloved—in other words, never.

I’ll love you...Until the twelfth of Never and that’s a long, long time

Since he’ll never stop loving her, he will love her “forever.” Randy Travis sings in the song that became a No. 1 hit, “Forever And Ever, Amen,” “If you wonder how long I’ll be faithful/I’ll be happy to tell you again/I’m gonna love you forever and ever, forever and ever, amen.” As the saying goes, love, like a diamond, lasts forever (amen), except for the skeptic Arthur Lee, who perversely titled Love’s third album Forever Changes (1967), in flat contradiction to the widespread sentiment that love lasts forever, even though he often sang very much like Johnny Mathis on that album.

Thus is my preamble to a blog entry in which I originally set out to discuss songs with numbers in them, prompted by hearing Tommy Tutone’s marvelous “867-5309/Jenny” on the car radio the other day. But I discovered that at least one site has already done something like what I set out to do, so there’s really no need, as the saying goes, to reinvent the wheel. However, lists of songs with numbers in them is one thing; what they mean is, well, a horse of a different color.

There is one particular song with numbers in the title that has always especially interested me—Jimi Hendrix’s “If Six Was Nine,” on Axis: Bold as Love (1967). In 1967, when Hendrix recorded the song, he was writing within a long tradition of pop and rock songs with numbers in them—and a time about ten years after Johnny Mathis recorded “The Twelfth of Never.” Just to get a feel for the subject, I’ve listed some pop songs (including country songs) with numbers in them, in order to reveal the affinity “If Six was Nine” has with songs such as “The Twelfth of Never.” I should add that I’m reasonably confident that all of the following songs appeared before the recording of "If Six was Nine," in October 1967. The list should not be considered exhaustive by any means.

Various numbers: The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, 98.6, 19th Nervous Breakdown, Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, 1941, 18 Yellow Roses, The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)
Highways: Route 66, Highway 61 Revisited, Highway 49
Cars: Rocket 88, 409
Girls: Sixteen Candles, You’re Sixteen, 96 Tears (note: 96=16x6)
Trains: Wreck of the Old 97
12: The Twelfth of Never
10: Ten Little Indians
9: Love Potion No. 9, Apartment No. 9, If Six was Nine
8: Eight Days a Week
7: 7 and 7 Is, 7 O’Clock News/Silent Night
6: Six O’Clock, Six O’Clock in the Morning, If Six was Nine
5: Take Five, Five O’Clock World
4: Positively 4th Street, 4th Time Around
3: Three O’Clock Rock, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.
2: Two Faces Have I, Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Empty Arms), Little Deuce Coupe
1: 1-2-3, Fool #1
0: Love Minus Zero/No Limit

Mickey Newbury’s “33rd of August,” written around the same time as “If Six was Nine” (but probably after, in 1968 or '69), contains the disorientation and dislocation of songs such as “Love Potion No. 9” and “7 & 7 Is” (“I'd sit inside a bottle and pretend that I was in a can”). In these songs, number is associated with external reality, a quotidian grounding in sequential, day-to-day life, the linear world of scientific, instrumental reason. But...that dreary day-to-day reality frequently doesn’t match the internal world of the desirous imagination (or confusion, for that matter), unfettered by quotidian time. Mathematics is a matter of reason, love is a matter of desire; numbers are invoked, but they require a disinterested intellect, in contrast to what is the absolute certainty of feeling. Think of Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World”:

Don’t know much about geography
Don’t know much trigonometry
Don’t know much about algebra
Don’t know what a slide rule is for

But I do know one and one is two,
And if this one could be with you
What a wonderful world this would be

Hence “The Twelfth of Never” points to a non-event, a moment in sequential, calendrical time that will never happen, a point in time that will never be reached. Just like the “33rd of August,” it refers to an impossible moment in time. In my view, "If Six was Nine” refers to this same impossible moment, a mathematical impossibility, the non-moment in Never when six shall be nine. For me, the song is a declaration of independence. I hear Thoreau in the song, and his statement, "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."

If the sun refused to shine
I don’t mind, I don’t mind
If the mountains fell in the sea
Let it be, it ain’t me

Got my own world to live through
And I ain’t gonna copy you

Now if six turned out to be nine
I don’t mind, I don't mind
If all the hippies cut off all their hair
I don’t care, I don’t care. Dig?

‘Cause I’ve got my own world to live through
And I ain't gonna copy you

White collar conservative(s) flashin’ down the street
Pointin’ their plastic finger at me
They’re hopin’ soon my kind will drop and die
But I’m gonna wave my freak flag high. High!

Wave on, wave on

Fall mountains, just don’t fall on me
Go ahead on Mr. Businessman
You can't dress like me

[inaudible talk—see below]
Don’t nobody know what I’m talkin’ about
I’ve got my own life to live
I’m the one that’s got to die
When it’s time for me to die
So let me live my life the way I want to…
There.

Sing on brother, play on drummer

In other words, the day will never come when I'll be like you. So there.

I’ll admit my interpretation doesn’t explore the possible “occult” inferences one can find in the song, as Harry Shapiro and Caesar Glebbeek do in their book Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995). I suppose my interpretation is fairly banal when compared to theirs; for instance, the reference to "Mr. Businessman" invokes, for me, anyway, the '50s novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (filmed 1956), a code for the ultimate conformist, a person interested only in material acquisition. In contrast, Shapiro and Glebbeek aver that the line, “If the mountains fell in the sea,” refers to the “second world of Hopi creation mythology” (225) because Hendrix was interested in Hopi mythology (or at least read a book about it). They go on to write:

Jimi was interested in the esoteric significance of colours—the ‘vibratory’ power of colour that lies behind expressions such as ‘green with envy,’ ‘seeing red,’ and ‘feeling blue.’ As a lead-in to the last verse . . . Jimi introduces colour symbolism to reinforce the enigmatic nature of his lyrics (‘there ain’t nobody knows what I’m talkin’ about’). He speaks of ‘purple, red, yellow and green’ where (in ancient scripts) purple rays make the individual a self-ruler, red is the colour of the pioneering spirit, green is the ray of balance and harmony achieved through struggle and conflict, while yellow is the colour of creativity. The final occult inference in the song is located in the title itself: in the I Ching commentary, 6 is one of the numbers of Earth, 9 one of the numbers of Heaven.... (225-26).

I’ve never actually heard Hendrix say the four colors that Shapiro and Glebbeek refer (I can’t make out what he is saying, despite the many dozen times I've listened to the song on headphones; I do admit, however, that he is saying something), but I’ll take their word for it. Most certainly colors--in the sense of one's "true colors"--are invoked by his reference to "flag," which carries one's "standard" in a military sense, or identifying colors. "Freak flag," of course, suggests unusual colors, or perhaps even black, as in skin color. And if--as Shapiro and Glebbeek claim--in the I Ching, 6 is indeed one of the numbers of Earth and 9 one of the numbers of Heaven, then the idea of the two places ever possibly being the same names an impossible moment in time--just like "the twelfth of never."

1 comment:

Sam's Neph said...

Sam! Can't believe you forgot Sam Cooke's "Only Sixteen!" :-)

Good to come across your blog again.

Erik Greene
Author, “Our Uncle Sam: The Sam Cooke Story From His Family's Perspective”
www.OurUncleSam.com